A new exhibition has opened which unlocks the wonderful world of knitwear. Stephanie Smith takes a peek behind the scenes.
“We all have a favourite jumper,” says Dennis Nothdruft. “Like when you’re a kid and your grandmother knitted something for you. Knitwear definitely does have that ability to make one feel comfortable and cosseted.”
Dennis is the curator behind a major new exhibition, Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood, which has come from a major retrospective at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London and has opened at The Gallery at the Barnsley Civic. It’s a private collection owned by fashion collectors and knitwear lovers Cleo and Mark Butterfield, with around 200 pieces from the turn to the 20th century to the present day, celebrating the evolution, the ingenuity, the beauty and the sheer joy of knitted garments.
Not everybody can associate with couture, Dennis says, but when it comes to knitwear, we can all understand it and love it. “It starts with an Edwardian petticoat, things that were really functional and flexible, through to some lovely 1920s Chanel twin sets – at the time they were the height of country house chic that she was doing.”
It’s a fascinating meander through the development of knitwear and fashion. Around the time of World War One, knitted sportswear became an option for modern women who wanted clothing that was more flexible and chic. Into the 1920s, the exhibition traces Chanel’s introduction of stylish, practical clothing made from jersey, which was traditionally a machine knit fabric used to make men’s undergarments.
In the 1920s, the knitted day dress became a practical and smart addition to a woman’s wardrobe, while knitted and crocheted evening dresses offered more sophisticated evening wear.
There is a “make do and mend” section, showcasing creative ways of recycling during World War Two, when sweaters were unravelled and knitted into multi-colour jumpers. Then there are Fifties cocktail sweaters, while the crocheted mini-dress became a staple of the 1960s, with patterns becoming available so women could create their own inexpensively.
Fashion designers such as Rudi Gernreich and André Courrèges became leading avant-garde designers, embracing knit and jersey fabrics in their futuristic designs. The 1970s saw Ossie Clark, Biba, Bill Gibb and Mary Quant all use knits to great effect, while the 1980s featured Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Zandra Rhodes and Sonia Rykiel all creating high fashion knitwear collections. Then in the 1990s Julien MacDonald challenged perceptions through his experimental use of unorthodox materials.
There is also a contemporary section featuring knitwear label SIBLING. “Sibling are genius,” says Dennis. “They’re really clever. They take things like a twin set and then completely subvert it.”
SIBLING is a collaboration between Joe Bates, Cozette McCreery and Sid Bryan, who is from Conisborough. Sid says SIBLING’s main aim is to push the boundaries of knitwear. “We adore knitwear. It’s an old skill and the possibilities within it are endless. Any chance to fly the flag in a knit-focused way is fine by us,” he says.
“There are some who, when you say ‘knitwear’, they still think twin sets, golf sweaters or granddad cardies. To be honest, so do we, but we love taking the traditional and turning it on its head.
“Many of our references start here so it’s a key part of what we do and the idea that people are surprised and can smile at a modern take on classics, either garments or knit techniques, is what keeps us interested in it.”
Sid grew up in Conisbrough and went to school in Mexborough, followed by a foundation design course at Doncaster college, then a degree in textiles at Buckinghamshire College, and a Masters Degree in Fashion Knitwear at the Royal College of Art. But he was taught to knit by his mum, when he was very young.
As Dennis Nothdruft says: ‘Knitwear is imbued with narrative and memory.”
• Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood, opens today and runs until November 13, 2015. Opening times: Tuesday–Saturday, 10am–5pm; last admission 15 minutes prior to closing. Monday closed. See www.barnsleycivic.co.uk.